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True-Life Tales of Professional Organizers: In the Land of the Happy Labelmakers

Never intimidated by empty shelves: Chris McKenry
Kevin Scanlon

Have you heard the one about the professional organizer who color-coded his children? Or seen the bumper sticker that says “Professional organizers do it on schedule”? The professional organizers standing around a West L.A. ballroom discussing the perils and intricacies of their industry have heard it all. “We’re looked at as if we have OCD,” a woman who goes by the online chat (and business) name Spatial Clarity says cheerfully. She specializes in small closets and in the chronically disorganized.

“It’s a good thing we have a sense of humor about our organizing,” another woman says.

“I ask clients not to clean their house before I come over,” another organizer offers. “Maybe they’ll have a coat lying on the sofa. Why do they have it there? Does the system work for them? Maybe they need a coat tree.”

“It’s emotional,” says John Trosko, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) Los Angeles chapter, which booked the ballroom for the evening’s Organizing Expo. “People don’t want to let go of their stuff.” He hands me a houndstooth-patterned folder.

“Oooh,” say the women in unison. Another organizer stares hard at us and asks, “Where did you get that folder?”

“You guys are too much,” Trosko says. “It’s the new line by Staples, all right? You can imagine the jokes we get.”

Trosko got flak from friends for compulsively making a last-minute list of things he had to bring tonight, which included masking tape, a NAPO banner, double-stick tape (for the banner), eyeglass cleaner, wristwatch, scissors. Lists, he believes, are excellent for “mind dumps,” defined as “putting everything down on paper so you free your mind of the mundane tasks and reminders, and encourage your head for creative freedom.”

People who specialize in bringing order to kitchen pantries, garages, attics and basements mill about. Various factions of the closet-organizing sector hawk their wares. Aspiring organizers are also in attendance, like Erin Haas, who assists former chapter president Chris McKenry with the overflow work in his firm Get It Together L.A.! “Chris doesn’t just build the closets. He helps you figure out where to put stuff, too, because people can be intimidated by all those empty shelves.” Haas has organized friends’ closets on a nonprofessional level and, she says, will probably launch her career by hitting up soccer moms.

One favorite topic of conversation is the Organizing Awards gala night some months back. Since the Hollywood writers were on strike at the time, the Organizing Awards was the glamorous event to attend. There, laurels like Best Office Organizing Product were distributed. Pendaflex hanging file folders won one year. The next year, the Brother P-Touch Label Maker won. The organizers labeled the microphone, a drinking glass and each other. The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization stole the award for Best Educational Resource, thanks to booklets like “Stop Fooling Yourself You’ll Never Get Around to Selling All That Crap on eBay.”

Chris McKenry took home the Expo evening’s Best In Show award, and promptly filed the certificate away in a portfolio. McKenry has blue eyes, a relaxed Southern accent, a weakness for antique colonial furniture, an ancestral home in Tennessee that sort of looks like Tara if you squint, and, conservatively, 1,000 organizing tips and tricks in his head. Like: “Don’t waste your prime real estate.” And: “Always have the handiest areas in your home for ‘active’ storage.”

He was at a Coldwell Banker’s office, speechifying about how professional organizers can help people to streamline the moving process, when he noted that one of the agents was sitting in a cramped little cubicle with no place to put her files. Her filing cabinet was jammed with 5,000 letterhead envelopes. “I got a good deal on letterhead,” she said.

“If you can’t use your space, did you really get a good deal on letterhead?”

Initially, he thought organizing was “doing the Martha thing,” making everything look pretty. But it goes deeper than that. “There comes a point where stuff stops enriching our lives. Clutter-clearing is the first step to getting organized. Then you figure out a system and stick to it. There are organizers who love working with hoarders. You can’t just go and do a quick purge with a hoarder. That person is going to go through a range of emotions.”

His passion is organizing on a big scale (his first project was a 20,000-square-foot home in Montecito). He used to run a chicken-processing plant in Tennessee. People kept telling him he was organized and ought to do it professionally. “Back then the word ‘organizing’ didn’t exist. Things either worked or they didn’t.” He calls out this bit of wisdom from the kitchen, emerging with a plate of minimuffins. “Really my specialty should be kitchens. I know how to make a kitchen run. I’m HAZMAT-certified, which is really the process NASA scientists designed for astronauts so they don’t get diarrhea when they’re in outer space. But people don’t care! They just want their cupboards organized.”

The principles of how space works are universal, applicable to even the tiniest closets and cabinets. His own apartment on the Miracle Mile is Martha in miniature. In the galley kitchen, where Tupperware is labeled “self-rising flour,” “confectioner’s sugar” and “pancake mix,” he removed the spices from their original tins and poured them into uniform jars, then alphabetized them. He tacked a shopping list on the door of the kitchen cupboard. He has a drawer just for batteries. “I’m not a minimalist like many organizers. Some of them think we need to be completely free of everything.”

Upstairs, he opens a drawer where socks are folded like sandwiches. “You know how some people roll their socks into little balls? It stretches out the elastic. Don’t do that.”

Sweaters, sweaters, sweaters. Folded with military precision. Arrayed by color — winter whites, to camel, to chocolate brown — by type, then by season: spring, winter and golf. On a blustery day in Brentwood, McKenry is doing some light maintenance on a client’s closet. “I didn’t know the difference between a golf sweater and a summer sweater,” he says in his dignified way. He’s in his element here among the shirts in orderly rows, the little engraved brass plates denoting “formal” and “casual.” It took four people a day to fold and place the sweaters into their cubbyholes, a factory assembly-line process that reminded McKenry of the repetitive motion of deboning chicken breasts.

The television show Monk, about the obsessive-compulsive detective, strikes a chord with the professional-organizing business. “I enjoy Monk,” McKenry allows. “There was that one episode where the woman was killed in her garage. When that garage door popped up, yes, there was a dead body on the floor, but I looked at the organized rack of tools on the wall and thought, ‘Why, this is amazing.’”

In the kitchen, he hauls out a black-leather binder heavy with recipes he’s subdivided into Pastas, Soups, Salmon, Scallops, Clam Chowder, etc., and lays it on the granite counter. Everything easy to find, no time wasted. “Organizers are really gut designers. Decorators make the open spaces beautiful, but we come in and make sense of how the cabinets should work.”

Gazing with pleasure at the pantry, where the client’s “mung whole polished” beans are in a separate labeled container from her “arborio rice” and “dried cranberries,” McKenry recites the organizers’ mantra: “We sort. We purge. We contain. Then maintain.” He gets that distant, meditative expression that comes with finding everything in its place, a place for everything. “John broke his foot and I took him to the hospital and we were joking that instead of signing his cast, we’d use a label maker and label it,” he says of current NAPO president Trosko. “Let me tell you. He was in pain, but he half wanted to do it.”

National Association of Professional Organizers, www.napo.net

Chris McKenry, Get It Together L.A.!, (323) 571-2134 or www.getittogetherla.com

John Trosko, Organizing L.A., (323) 512-7039 or www.organizingla.com

 


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